The natural beauty, long history and generous people in Ninh Binh province attracts many local and foreign tourists. A hidden secret is the region’s gastronomic riches. Nature has given Ninh Binh the towering green limestone mountains that rise above the clouds, the countless clear water streams and lakes and an astoundingly diverse wildlife and a stunning fauna. History has favored Ninh Binh as well, with the myriad temples, pagodas and grottoes that remain today to testify to Vietnam from its inception. But it doesn’t end there.
Taking advantage of the generous geography and weather has resulted in the purest and most quintessential Vietnamese produce that the adventurous tourist, no matter how jaded, will appreciate. Here at Discover Ninh Binh we are proud to showcase the Ninh Binh specialty foods that are regarded as part of province’s long and unique “cultural identity”.
Com Chay Ninh Binh
Scorched rice in its many variations is a well-known dish worldwide. As Nurungji, it is a much loved nutritious dish in Korea. In China, “guōbā” is a favorite snack and used as a condiment in many other dishes, In Indonesia it is called Intip and is sundried after cooking to give it that extra crunchy texture, In Japan it is called Okoge, in Iran and Afghanistan they like it with vegetables and call it Tahdig but you get the picture. Scorched Rice is a favorite in many countries and cultures.
In Vietnam, scorched rice is called Com Chay and can found in many markets, restaurants, kios, railroads, and even supermarkets throughout the country. Manufactured or home cooked, its preparation will vary from region to region but basically it is recooking (“scorching”) dried rice cakes in oil until they change color to golden brown.
But like many “simple” foods, the process takes some practice, a little flare and good ingredients. Cơm Cháy Ninh Bình has been officially acknowledged as one of the 10 most famous specialties of Vietnam and, as any local will tell you, half the secret is in the rice itself. Grown in the Hồng River flood plains with its rich soils, abundant clear water and large fields, the rice harvested here are is recognized as particularly rich and flavorsome.
A crunchy snack
The base and most of the ingredient is, of course, rice. This is usually a mix of 50% glutinous (“sticky rice”) and 50% “normal” rice. Traditionally, the rice is first boiled in a large, thick walled cast-iron pot. The important thing here is that the chef must continually balance and stir the rice and water combination so that the rice becomes sticky at the bottom and releases bits of the slowly scorched rice but at the same time never burns.
Once it reaches the desired consistency, the mixture is taken outside to be sun-dried in thin squares or circular slabs to retain the sweetness of the rice and to remove any excess water. The dried slabs are then deep fried until golden brown, the oil often mixed with other ingredients. Scallions, chilli and fish sauce ar common but largely depends on the chef’s tastes and desired outcome. Pork Floss (cơm cháy chà bông) or Dried Shrimp (cơm cháy tôm khô) are often sprinkled on top to give it that extra zing.
Aside from a snack, guests can enjoy it with mountain goat or a dipping cracker with sweet pork or meat sauces. A popular alternative is shiitake mushrooms and chopped carrots for a sweet, vegetarian alternative. The richness of the sauces combine with the crispy, sweet, and light flavor of Com Chay to create a deceptively simple dish that explodes onto the palette. Whether you try it as a snack, as a meal, manufactured or home cooked, no visit to Ninh Binh is complete without a sampling of Com Chay Ninh Binh.
It is impossible to mention Com Chay in this “sacred land of extraordinary people” without mentioning mountain goat meat. Many parts of Vietnam are known for goat husbandry but the most notable and renowned are the goats from the Hoa Lu – Ninh Binh highlands. Raised by farmers on the steep limestone mountains that “reach for the horizon”, the Ninh Binh goat are true mountain goats, grazing on the unique plants and herbs of these iconic Karsts. It is believed that this diet allows the goats here absorb the “essence of heaven and earth” resulting in a soft, chewy, and exceptionally lean meat.
Like any meat, the preparation of goat varies greatly, such as pan fried, grilled, barbequed, slow cooked and so on. A Ninh Binh Specialty Food Binh is “Dê Tái Chanh” also known as the less than appetizing English translation of “Boiled Goat with Lemon Juice”. Mrs Cuc Daisy of Ninh Binh, shared with us the traditional method passed down by her family to rid the goat meat of its strong smell and make it sweet and refreshing.
First a carefully selected portion of fresh goat is washed thoroughly and allowed to drain. A marinade is then prepared using a mixture of ginger, galangal root and lemongrass along with any special herbs or spices individual chefs might favor. The washed meat is then allowed sit in the marinade for perhaps 20 minutes while the chef massages the meat to insure proper uptake of the spiced mixture.
After a short while, the meat is removed from the marinade and lightly steamed until it reaches a “rare” state – cooked but still moist. When the chef decides it is ready, the meat is taken from the heat and put in a cool shaded position to let it settle. Alternatively, you can chill the meat in a refrigerator for 30 min or so. Cooled, the meat is then sliced into thin strips and given a second marinade of a mixture of lemon juice. According to the chef’s personal preference, other condiments like sugar, coriander, salt, fish sauce, sesame seeds and more ginger and herbs will be added.
Left to sit for several minutes, the lemon juice breaks down any remaining toughness of the meat while the added herbs and spices serve to enhance the flavor. There is no need to recook and the meal is can accompanied by fig leaves, carambola, and a Vietnamese traditional soy sauce together. The sweet and slightly chewy meat bursts with the gentle spiciness of chilli, galangal and lemon grass complemented by the harshness of fig leaves and carambola. Dipped in traditional Vietnamese soy sauce, the succulent mixture has been likened by some pundits to the emotional experience of a first kiss. Try it before you disagree!
Cá Rô Tổng Trường- Ninh Binh Climbing Perch
Visitors to Am Tien Cave and Pagoda, often admire the scenery of the clear blue lake and the mosaic of moss on the shallow bottom that swarms with schools of fish swimming around the lotus flowers. Living under the shadow of the reflected high mountains imprinted on the lake surface, these fish live in a fairy tale setting with a very tasty ending.
The schools of fish raised at the bottom of this lake are not only your typical Asian Koi but also a peculiar species of perch endemic to the flooded valleys and rivers of Trang An and its surrounding area. Ninh Binh Specialty Food this fish was once considered as an “offering to the king” but times have changed and this succulent delicacy can now be savored by all.
With the scientific name of Anabas testudineus and a local name of cá rô đồng (copper perch), it is also known as the “Tổng Trường climbing perch”. The name derives from the amazing ability of the fish to migrate to different waterholes and streams by crossing land – usually in the rainy season and usually at night.
Morphologically similar to the field perch, its long evolution in the Ninh Binh limestone enriched waters it has turned its scales gray-green color with the abdomen much lighter than the rest of the body (hence the “Copper Perch” moniker). “Tổng Trường” is an ancient name for Trang An and hence its full Vietnamese name of “Tổng Trường cá rô đồng”. Quite a mouthful, like the fish itself.
Like most perch, the cá rô đồng are omnivores, feeding off aquatic mollusks, small fish, insects and waterborne foliage, including moss and grass. Like any fish, the methods to cook it are very diverse, including fried, baked or braised in a variety of sauces. The species are quite common through out Vietnam but the regional specialty in Ninh Binh is to turn the local “Tổng Trường cá rô đồng” into a rich sweet- sour soup.
This signature dish is prepared by first lightly boiling the fish to separating the meat from the bones. Next the bones are ground into a paste and boiled with water and salt to make a strong fish stock. While this is happening, the fish meat itself is sautéed with sliced shallot, fish sauce and crushed ginger to reduce any of the “muddiness” that sometimes occurs with fresh water fish. When both are ready, leaf mustard greens and rice noodles are added to the broth, along with the freshly fried fish meat and selected herbs.
The delicate aroma of the broth, the softness of the boiled rice noodle together with the spicy taste of the ginger laced oil and the fragrant aroma of the herbs and shallots blend to create a unique masterpiece of the culinary arts. As our resident food editor puts it “when eaten, it endures on the tongue and sparks an image of green-yellow rice field surrounded by high green mountains and the rays of the sun through the clouds illuminating the “little souls” like a mother’s love enveloping her child”.
Kim Son Vermicelli Soup
If the combination of Dê Tái Chanh and Ninh Binh Com Chay gives us the feeling of harmony, then Kim Son pork meatball vermicelli gives us the feeling of returning to a lover after so many days apart. Bun Moc or Pork and Mushroom Meatball Soup, can be found throughout North Vietnam but the distinguishing feature of Kim Son Vermicelli soup is that it while it appears simple and basic, the taste is a whole different experience!
Kim Son Vermicelli Soup in its simple form consists of light vermicelli noodles cooked in a broth of stock made from pork bones that have been left simmering for at least a day. The broth is filtered to make it clear before adding the noodles, then a little extra green spring onion for aroma, chopped sawleaf for flavor and sliced shallot fried in oil for a slightly crunchy texture are added. Finally, the soup is scattered with meatballs the size of a small baby’s fist, a few slices of Cha Lua (pork roll) and a little pepper for flavor to produce yet another Ninh Binh Specialty Food.
The meatballs themselves are made from the “secret” recipe of the people of Kim Son but like many other Vietnamese meatballs, the core ingredient is Giò Sống (ground pork). The secret is in the chef’s expertise in estimating the ratio of its other ingredients such as salt, pepper, seasoning and chopped Pork rib cartilage. To check the quality of the meatball, they are molded and lightly blanched in the pork bone broth before being thrown onto the cutting board to test their “bounce”. As a result, the meatball in Kim Son pork meatball vermicelli is unique and the dish makes a superb lunch or breakfast.
Steamed Mountain Snails
Humans are one of the most developed organisms on the planet with exceptional intelligence and the capacity to adapt to any environment, allowing them to thrive. Along with the success in populating the earth, they have also developed classes and strata in society to control and raise the bar in order to fulfill and satisfy their needs and desires. However, even with the exceptional changes in today’s modern society, there are still famous recipes that have survived centuries.
It is not surprising that nature has provided these rich fields and limestone mountains at Ninh Binh with animals and plants that provide nutrition to mankind. The rice that makes Com Chay Ninh Binh is one example. The succulent mountain goat meat and the endemic Tong Trường Perch are others. One further example is the humble Ninh Binh mountain snail.
These large and distinctive mollusks are not easy prey as they mostly live in darkened caverns and caves in specific regions such as Nho Quan district, Tam Diep city, and Yen Mo. They only emerge to eat and reproduce during the rainy season in Vietnam, which lasts from April to August each year. During this season, farmers must go early in the morning to catch them as for the remainder of the day they retire behind thick foliage and in rock crevices to rest and evade predators. As a result, the Ninh Binh mountain snail makes an exceptional and rare cuisine experience.
A Magical DIet
Mountain snail diet is diversified but primarily plants, particularly precious Chinese herbs that grow wild in the caves and fissures of the limestone cliffs. Once caught, a chef will often wash the gastropod carefully – just enough to clean it but not lose the “traditional medicine” taste of its rare herb diet. The snails may then be prepared in a variety of ways, including grilled, fried with tamarind, steamed with lemongrass, and so on. However, a popular and simple way to prepare them is to steam with coconut water, lime leaf, and citronella for around 20-30 minutes and then serve with garlic fish sauce, chilly, ginger, sugar, and lemon.
Starting with the cool sweetness of bland coconut water mixed with the tantalizing taste of lime leaf and the mild spicy of citronella and chili, the snails should be chewed slowly, leaving a gentle aroma of the rare Chinese herbs on the palate. As our resident foody Grizz puts it: “it brings to mind trying to catch Moonbeams on a cold and lonely night, then realizing it’s an illusion and to instead just enjoy the dream-like beauty of the moment”
Eel with Arrowroot Vermicelli
Along with its lengthy history, wet rice cultivation has been a particularly crucial prerequisite of Vietnam’s growth and strength. Folk songs, choruses about green rice fields or golden stork wings flying over a harvest field color a mother’s lullaby to a Vietnamese child. Passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, Vietnamese have long recognized the great value that agricultural endeavor has wrought from the rich lands around Ninh Binh.
The Vietnamese eel is an elongated finless fish with a natural slippery secretion that makes catching them difficult. Sometimes mistaken for a snake, it survives by burrowing in the mud in wet rice fields or in the banks tiny rivers and streams. A traditional Vietnamese nutritional foodstuff that is recognised as a particularly healthy food rich in vitamins, minerals and flavour. For Ninh Binh, Eel with Arrowroot Vermicelli is one of the special meals that travelers should not neglect when visiting the area.
Eels captured in damp rice fields will be first cleaned and filleted to eliminate any odors and to separate the bones and flesh. The eel bones are then combined with a pork bone broth to make a rich stew while the rest of the meat is sautéed in oil until golden. After straining the pork and eel broth to produce a clear, flavorsome soup, Arrowroot Vermicelli as well as “Piper Lolot” leaves and Vietnamese coriander are added. Finally, the fried eel meat is added, along with chopped scallions and fried shallots sprinkled on top. As a finish, a squeeze of lime to generate a small acidity will be added with a sprinkle of pepper to give it all some “bite”.
Usually eaten with sliced banana blossom and sprouts, the soup is a rich, aromatic sensation. As Grizz puts it: ” Toothsome and gorgeous. The flavors blend like pink clouds after a hard day’s work, while the rich broth brings back the sweet successes of the past glorious years, like rose buds opening after an evening washing from a peaceful night rain”. Definitely worth a try!
Nem Chua Yên Mạc
Filial piety is a “spiritual heritage” and a standard measure of the spirit of the Vietnamese people. Not only part of people’s belief in ancestor worship, but as part of everyday life. This dish is believed to have originated from the filial piety of a daughter to her father, who was a former official in the Nguyễn court. Nem Chua Yên Mạc or Yen Mac fermented sour pork roll is said to symbolize in culinary form the essence of the filial piety of Vietnamese culture.
The major component in Yen Mac fermented pork roll is of course, pork. Carefully selected pork-skin is processed then boiled. Cooled, it is then sliced into long strips before being combined with the pork meat itself and wrapped in guava and banana leaves The resultant packets are then fermented in a mixture of thính (ground roasted rice), pepper, salt, and garlic. The salt content, ground toasted rice, and the dryness, suppleness, and flexibility of the final product are used to determine if the result is a success.
Once the spring rolls are deemed acceptable, they are then placed outdoors to ferment for 1-6 days, depending on the outdoor temperature. The Yen Mac fermented sour roll will be served with garlic dipping sauce, chili and sugar, all wrapped in fig leaves. The mild sour flavor of fermented pork, the soft chewy pork skin, the hot taste of chili combined with the taste of fish sauce is a rare treat as the number of people still willing and able to go through the laborious process and learn the secret skills grows fewer every year. If you get the chance, don’t ever pass over the famous Nem Chua Yen Mac !
As our resident foody Grizz says “When combined with a cup or two of Kim Son rice wine – Nem Chua Yen Mac generates an exquisite, spicy flavor on the tip of the tongue. On the chilly rainy days of winter it brings the touch of nature ‘s “breath” and clears all the cares and anxieties in each person’s thoughts” Or maybe that is just the potent Kim Son rice wine!
Ant Egg Sticky Rice
The meal known as Xôi Trứng Kiến or Ant egg sticky rice is another Ninh Binh Specialty Food, albeit a little more exotic and perhaps only for the more adventurous. The dish is relatively expensive and very seasonal due to the difficulty of collecting the right sort of ant eggs. Farmers must wait for the day the black and brown ants breed and then harvest the ant nests on bright and dry days, otherwise, the eggs cling together and ruin the quality.
Any remaining brown ants are filtered out before the eggs are washed and then blanched with hot water and left to dry. The prepared eggs are then sautéed in chicken fat and chopped shallots to provide a rich garnish. “Sticky” glutinous rice cultivated in the Ninh Binh highlands is steamed with fresh mung beans and gac fruit to provide color . Finally it is served on a plate with the sticky rice on the bottom and the ant egg and fried shallots mixture on top.
As our favorite foodie describes it; “When you chew, you will love hearing the sound of the eggs breaking, causing hundreds of small “beeps” in your mouth like listening to symphony music when the high notes blend with the flute and sound like clouds in the afternoon over the sea, softly dragging each wave to touch the “vibration” of the heart”. I think I need some more of that Kim Son rice wine …
Gỏi Nhệch Kim Son
Sashimi is the Internationally famous Japanese dish made from raw seafood. Similarly, a basic fish salad (Goi Ca) made from uncooked fish is popular in many places in Vietnam, usually accompanied with herbs, chili, Noc Mun and fig wrapping leaves. As a variation of the theme, Gỏi Nhệch is another popular Vietnamese raw seafood salad, this time prepared from the small fry of rice-field eels.
The southern Ninh Binh district of Kim Son’s has its own version of this distinctive salty raw fish salad and is one of the many meals on the list of Ninh Binh Specialty Foods. The Nhech (baby eel) that reside in the many Ninh Binh estuaries and coastal lagoons are the raw material for this appealing and rustic cuisine but they are quite powerful and aggressive and their bodies are also slippery, making them difficult to capture.
Making this salad is simple, but it must be done quickly to avoid the fishy taste and maintain the freshness of the meat. The Nhech is first processed after being caught by washing it thoroughly in a water and lime juice mixture before removing the belly and organs and separating the bones from the flesh. The fish meat is then thinly sliced, squeezed with fresh lemon juice, and seasoned with traditional seasonings. The fish skin and bones will be boiled and mixed with herbs and spices and used as a dipping sauce.
To enhance the taste, the dish is most often served with green plants such as fig leaf, lemongrass, perilla, mint, and ginger, as well as chopped Galangal, chili, and raw shallot. Using the fig leaf as a “skin”, you then fill it with the eel meat and your desired condiments then roll it up much like a spring roll or banh cuon. The rich flavor of the prepared sauce combined with the fresh crunchiness of the fried eel, the mild sourness of lime, the roughness of fig leaves, and the fiery flavor of chili peppers is a true taste sensation.
Bun Cha Ninh Binh
Bún Chả, like Phở, is a famous meal that most travelers in Vietnam should be familiar. Bun Cha Ninh Binh provides tourists with a unique experience that can only be found in this region. The spring rolls (nem chua) are made with minced fatty pork using a secret recipe that includes minced shallots, pepper, and garlic which are then barbequed over charcoal for 30-45 minutes. Sweet and sour fish sauce and papaya are served with fresh rice vermicelli and vegetables such as lettuce, Vietnamese balm, mints, bean sprouts, and spring onions to add flavor. The fatty scent of meatballs, fresh rice vermicelli gently dipping in sweet and sour papaya fish sauce gives diners a hearty sweet-sour flavor that is is difficult to describe but generally thought of as one of the truly great North Vietnamese dishes.